Make the Most of Your Expat Experience
Because my family’s overseas move took place so long ago, I could only vaguely remember how I coped with the transition. I do remember being quite homesick and a bit depressed in the beginning. However, the friends I made and the groups I joined helped me survive and eventually thrive in my new city.
To help get some more ideas on successful expat living, I polled a group of my friends in Dubai for their top tips. Some of these women have been living as expats for decades; others are in the midst of making the transition for the first time. They offered some insights that hadn’t occurred to me. After I gathered their suggestions, I wished someone had told me these strategies when I first landed in Dubai twelve years ago.
- Stay in the present. Don’t waste your time longing for your past life “back home” or daydreaming about your next posting or next visit home. Instead, cherish and enjoy every moment that you have today—in whatever city or country that may be.
- Make your new house your home. Take your time choosing a new home. Don’t be rushed. When you move in, unpack quickly. Decorate and personalize your home as though you will live there forever. Expats who don’t take time to set up their new dwelling often feel stuck in limbo.
- Meet people and make friends as soon as possible. I always tell newcomers to join a group and make connections right away. Don’t wait until you are “settled” to start making friends. You can begin to make contacts with expat groups even before you arrive. It’s not enough just to make friends with people of the same nationality or from your workplace. Branch out! Find people with common interests, be it bicycling, charity, art or photography. Join a faith community, meet your neighbors or become a volunteer.
- Create a community for yourself. One challenge of expat life is leaving our family and friends behind. New expats often move to a foreign city without knowing a soul. It takes time, but it’s important to create a community—new friends to share holidays with or to turn to during difficult times. And because our fellow expats eventually move away, we need to keep adding to our circle.
- Stay positive. Make your overseas move with the attitude that you will succeed. Focus on the positive and the exciting aspects of your new place of residence, not just on what is missing. Hang out with people who embrace the expat experience. Avoid those who just want to complain or criticize the new place.
- Dive deeply into the new culture. I have heard expats complain that Dubai has “no culture.” I think these people expect the local culture to be served up to them on a gold platter. It requires more effort than that—a lot more. In Dubai, start by taking a tour of a mosque or join in a cultural breakfast. Take a course in learning Arabic or take an Arabian food tour. Read books about your new country. Explore places that make you a little uncomfortable—be it a hole-in-the-wall eatery, a fruit and vegetable souk or a neighborhood where no one looks like you.
- Experience as much as possible. Be open to what is new. Read guides and local magazines to find out what to see and do in your new city. Don’t wait until you have houseguests or you are leaving to start exploring. The most exciting and memorable experiences are outside your comfort zone.
- At work, be flexible and willing to adapt. Avoid continually comparing your new workplace with your last. Bring lots of patience and be open to new ways. Those who thrive in an international work setting are those who tolerate differences and avoid stereotyping based on nationality.
- Learn how to stay safe. As soon as you arrive, find out the emergency phone numbers for your new city. Figure out how to get to the clinic and emergency room. In addition to a GPS, get a street atlas to help you get oriented. Learn how to keep yourself, your home and your family safe in this new setting. Not sure how to find out those things? That’s what all those new friends are for.
- Always remember you are a guest. Read up on the local culture, know what is expected of you, and act accordingly. Dress and behave respectfully.
- Take advantage of travel opportunities. The Middle East is truly at the crossroads. It’s possible to do short trips in all directions and experience endless destinations and cultures. Even if you can only scrape together one trip per year, you can see much of the world this way.
- Keep in touch with the best of “Back Home.” Expat life is exciting and challenging because of all the unexpected lifestyle changes. Stay grounded with some carefully selected traditions and customs from your home country. For example, at my house, no matter how busy we are, we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday each year with a traditional meal.
- Live as though you’ll be here forever—but also be ready to pick up and go. Oh, the paradox of expat living. Create a life for yourself in this new place, but live each day, week, month, year in your expat home as if it were your last—because it could be. This way, you’ll have no regrets.